Move Over Technical SEO, Human Search Intent Is Driving SEO in 2021


I had the pleasure of interviewing Dale Bertrand, a 20-year veteran SEO strategist who is President and Founder of Fire&Spark, an agency helping brands craft meaningful SEO strategies. We talked at length about the shifts taking place in search engine AI, human search intent, how SEO is evolving, and what brands can do to strategically adjust for better SEO in the new year.

G39: Going into 2021, what is the first thing companies should do to adjust their SEO strategy or adjust their content?

DB: It’s likely that they need to focus on authority. I’m just thinking of the conversations I’m having with brands trying to figure out what they’re going to do in the new year. What they don’t want to do is focus on technical SEO optimizations that might get them like a 5% bump (unless there’s something obviously broken that needs to be fixed). So, SEO used to be a bunch of technical things you do to your website and then you get visibility traffic and sales.

Now, it’s realizing that SEO is no longer a discreet technical discipline or toolkit, or even a specialty that you can hire somebody to do. What it really is, is a way that you coordinate your marketing activities to get visibility with search engines; A coordinated series of content marketing, PR, influencer marketing, and related activities that earns you SEO, which then gets you visibility, traffic, and sales.

My recent HubSpot Inbound talk was about human SEO, human SEO strategies, and mission-driven SEO. So, the human piece is customer-centric, understanding your customers is going to lead to all the good things that Google’s looking for. And then the mission-driven strategy is that your SEO needs to have a mission. That’s what’s going to lead to the authority that Google’s looking for.

To really focus on content authority, you’re not going to be focused on the technical. We call this Authority First SEO. So, there’s technical-first SEO: do a technical fix on a bunch of things, and then pray. And then there’s the Authority First SEO, where you’re taking a human-first approach in trying to understand your branding and fit – and  finding who it resonates with – and then really amplifying that with content and the authority signals Google’s looking for.

G39: SEO used to largely rely on technical aspects: site structure, proper tagging, metadata, and so forth. What’s changed with the Google algorithm?

DB: In the beginning, Google’s algorithm was easier to manipulate and Google has put a lot of effort over the last two decades into making their algorithm less vulnerable to the types of technical manipulations that SEO people used to do. There were all kinds of technical things you could do that would allow you to artificially rank, like ranking for a keyword even though you don’t have the best content, or the most authority for that particular topic.

So, what’s changed is that Google has become a lot better at filtering websites and determining who has authentic authority because they have influence in the space, their information is accurate, they’re trustworthy, and they have the expertise to back it up — versus people who just have a big website in order to trick Google into thinking that they should rank for keywords.

Basically, Google’s AI algorithms can figure out what pages online to crawl, which should be called with the most frequency, which ones should be ignored — and then also how to process those pages to figure out which ones should rank and then also determining which websites and which pages have the most authority in the industry on the particular topics. And it is the AI that can understand queries.

So, if I type in “3D printer” am I looking to buy a 3D printer or am I looking for a 3D printing service? That’s a good example because we have two key words: 3D printer and 3D printing. Google needs to know whether to show sites that sell printers for 3D printing or to show on-demand printing services for the 3D printing keyword. While there’s a subtle difference, it’s a huge difference.

Google needs to be able to pick up on the intent behind the keyword at scale for billions of keywords. And it’s not only that — it’s keywords that Google has never seen before.

So, if I type in “where can I find a ‘thingamawidget’?” and Google has never seen this word before, it will still have to try to figure out what it is; Google’s AI is getting much better at figuring this out and understanding the intent behind queries.

G39: Is there a magic SEO percentage: technical versus content? Tagging and technical aspects still have relevance, right? Is it 25% technical and 75% content or does it just depend?

DB: You can think about it either way: you could say 100% technical or you can say 100% content and intent. The reason why is: imagine if you had an all-knowing librarian who understood every page on the web in terms of what it was about and who it would be useful to…and then you ask that all-knowing librarian “You know I’m really looking for this thing and let me describe to you what I need” and the librarian says, “Okay, you need to read that page right there.” So, there’s nothing technical about that, it’s just understanding what exactly is this person looking for (intent)? And then with Google understanding (out of the billions and billions of pages out there) which ones would be useful. So that’s 0% technical.

But, when you look at the web and you look at what Google is doing, because of the nature of how the internet works, they’re fetching web pages. They’re reading copy on pages. They’re looking at the way the pages are structured in the HTML and page load speeds; Those are all technical artifacts of what’s really going on — which is the content itself — and Google needs to look at those technical artifacts to figure out is this useful content? Are people engaging with it? When they go to the page, do they stay and read it, or do they just immediately bounce off?

So, you can look at it either way. I think the right way to look at it is really to start with kind of the human aspect, which is this: There’s a person asking for something and the algorithm is trying its best to give them the right thing. And that’s the place to start if you’re a content strategist or content marketer trying to understand your customers. What are they looking for? What information do they need to make this buying decision? Am I delivering this information so that I have earned the right to introduce them to my products for my services?

That’s what Google is trying to do and they’re getting really, close, but at the end of the day, they still need to look at technical artifacts. For most marketers the shortcut is to just do right by your customers and, like Google, continue to get better and better in skating to where the puck is going rather than trying to figure out how to “game Google”.

G39: H1, H2, H3 tags…if I have an awesome piece of content without these tags, am I OK from an SEO perspective?

DB: I want both; I want useful content and I want it to be correct from a technical perspective in terms of the H1s and H2s. Imagine you write a really useful piece of content with no H1s, no H2s, and it’s HTML, so, Google can read it and crawl it, but besides that there’s no structure that would help us optimize it whatsoever. If that’s a useful piece of content for somebody who’s searching for whatever that page is about, then Google’s going to rank it and send traffic to it regardless of how optimized your H1s and H2S are.

The opposite of that is if there’s a piece of content in the SEO space that is purely gibberish content, meaningless and not useful to anybody for any purpose – BUT, hey, we got the H1 tags right – that’s not the answer. A lot of times the reason why people are so focused on technical bits like H1s and H2s is that it’s easier to manipulate that putting the effort into t. Writing good content takes effort.

G39: We know that established brands do better in rankings than startups because they just exhibit the engagement and authority signals that Google is looking for. How can startups and smaller businesses build authority? Can they look more like an established brand just through content?

DB: So, a few different things: Content – if it’s useful, if it’s trustworthy, accurate, yes — but from there, do you have the expertise in the area? Assuming you do, you demonstrate that to Google in part by the company you keep, which is relationships. It’s really 1) content that’s actually useful, 2) having some expertise in the space of that you’re trustworthy and 3) relationships – the company you keep, are you members of associations in your niche or industry? Do you have people with letters after their name writing content on your site with the technical artifacts (backlinks, etc.) of those relationships?

G39: So, going into 2021 where should companies focus their SEO spend?

DB: Great question. Normally my answer is it depends, but I’m going to go on a limb; Most brands I talk to are in the B2B space. What they’re lacking is a basic understanding of who their customers are, what their customers’ motivations and worldviews are, and why their customers would initiate a sales conversation with them in the first place. And when they know what motivates their customers to make buying decisions, they can start to think about what the content needs to be. And then approach content creation from an angle that is aligned with their buyer personas’ worldview.

So, with most brands that I’ve talked to, it’s really time to take a step back and have conversations with customers and learn more about them. And then, when you do that right, you will have those answers through an intimate understanding — it flows from there and it will be obvious what to do.

G39: We’re always talking to our clients about how pillar pages and topic clusters can help improve SEO, what should we keep in mind for 2021 when it comes to pillar pages and topic clusters.

DB: For a lot of the companies that I talk to, they’re in a competitive space and when they’re doing something like topic clusters the key is that it needs to be linkable.

When I build a pillar page, it’s got to be something like a guide or skyscraper type of article that is linkable so I can set up promotions to link to it. And that’s really what’s going to boost the topic cluster from an SEO perspective. I’ve always done that, but nowadays it’s necessary for a lot of companies that are operating in competitive spaces for SEO.

G39: So how do you personally organize your content with that natural language processing in mind?

DB: It is based on what’s linkable. So, what we’re trying to do is to organize from an internal linking perspective; We want internal links to pages that were trying to boost. Imagine if we put a link on the homepage, that helps boost an internal page. The problem is you can’t do that with every page.

I’m thinking of a project that I’m working on where it’s a big website, but the only page with any authority is the homepage. So, what I want is to create a topic cluster around a linkable pillar page where I can get some links to that and I’m able to build out some authority to deeper pages on the site… without feeling like the only way to do that is to put a link in the homepage or the navigation.

G39: How do you how do you approach clients who have a ton of content that isn’t mission-driven? How do you convince them that there’s a better way?

DB: What it comes down to is looking at the buyer persona that they’re going after and determining what would resonate with that persona.

For example, I work with a jewelry brand that sells an autism puzzle piece necklace and while they have a whole lot of other jewelry, this piece really resonates with a niche. So, I like the idea of focusing that brand on that niche. If I’m working with a brand and they have a lot of content, but it feels very generic, I would talk to them about what do they know about the persona they’re going after and get them excited about content would really resonate with them. That’s kind of the “in” because if we went in that direction, chances are their marketing metrics would improve — and then they would see and get it.

G39: We know that Google has changed from being the search engine to an answer engine, right? In the Kingdom of Keywords, do the “how to” and action keywords reign supreme?

DB: We look at every keyword as a question with a purpose. And a lot of it really depends on the competition in your space. Because there are spaces where there’s just more how-to content, for example “how to make a soufflé”… there’s probably 155,000 recipes out there. So, it’s not necessarily going to help just because it’s how-to content.

We try not to think too hard about keywords. We think about topics our buyer personas care about so that we’re writing useful content on those topics and then Google understands that when they type in certain keywords that they’re looking for the type of content we created.

I still do keyword research at the beginning of projects because I want to understand what the keyword landscape looks like, but going forward we’re looking more at topic research or search intent research, which is going beyond keywords. When we’re working with clients, we want to make sure that they understand the intent behind the keyword as Google understands it, as this is more important than the keyword itself. So, we’re trying to stop calling it keyword research and start calling it search intent research.

For example, if I sell kids shoes, I want to rank for “shoes”, but there’s a ton of volume there and the problem is you don’t really know what the intent is. “Shoes” is one of those keywords that doesn’t really have a discernible intent because you could be looking for flip flops, high heels, work boots…

If I sell kids shoes, I wouldn’t recommend putting resources into optimizing for the term “shoes”, because there’s no real intent there. So then, what intent should we be optimizing for? Well, if you sell kids shoes, then it’s likely a parent looking to buy their child shoes. That’s the intent.

Or maybe a teenager looking to buy the next pair of shoes that will impress their friends at school. Suddenly we move beyond “I want to rank for the keyword ‘shoes’” to understand the intent and the motivation and the worldview of my customers — and Google already does this at scale.

And if I understand this, instead of writing an article on “where to buy shoes online”, I’m writing an article about how parents can buy cheaper shoes for their kid who wants the expensive Nike Jordan shoes to impress kids at school. This is much more interesting and useful to somebody — and Google knows that – and it will show up.

G39: Instead of the keyword research, companies should research search intent. You have keyword tools but for search intent, it’s a little different than simply running a query using an online tool. It’s looking more inward at customers and really trying to understand how to solve their problems, right?

DB: Yes, you must interview real people, and that’s Marketing 101. That’s really what it comes down to.

Contact us and let’s talk about your firm’s 2021 SEO goals.


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